CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—The perception at this regional seems to be that top-seeded North Carolina isn’t playing its best, because it has let No. 4 seed Canisius and then No. 3 Towson hang around in back to back games.
After beating Canisius 6-3 Friday, the Tar Heels took a pair of five-run leads against Towson, then held on for an 8-5 victory. The Tar Heels (54-8) advance to the regional championship to meet the winner of the Tigers’ Sunday afternoon game with second seed Florida Atlantic.
Coach Mike Fox thinks his Tar Heels are playing well, if not firing on all cylinders, as both games were in doubt in the eighth inning. UNC banged out 13 hits and scored eight runs without much help from Towson (30-29), which got 7.2 gritty innings out of righty Brandon Gonnella (4-5) and committed only one fairly meaningless ninth-inning error.
“You guys (reporters) are trying to make me think that we’re not playing well,” Fox said. “But I think you have to look at the other team. Towson has not played like a 30-29 team, for one . . . When the other team is not making mistakes, you have to earn everything.”
North Carolina did, with several key hits. Senior first baseman Cody Stubbs blasted a solo homer in the second, his eighth of the season, and sophomore shortstop Michael Russell had his best postseason game, with three hits and three RBIs in five trips. The big blow was Russell’s two-run single in the fourth to open up a 3-0 lead, and his double in the eighth was part of a two-run rally that proved crucial. Brian Holberton added two hits and an RBI, and he caught for six innings before moving to left field. He punctuated the evening with an assist when Towson’s Richie Blossser tried to stretch his third hit of the night into a double but was nailed by Holberton at second.
But North Carolina also didn’t put the Tigers away, as Towson kept grinding and got to Kent Emanuel (11-3). The ace lefty faced the minimum through five innings, then gave up single runs in the sixth and seventh before Towson put up three to chase him in the eighth. UNC had to go to freshman closer Trent Thornton for the second consecutive night, and he picked up his eighth save, including retiring Brendan Butler to end the eighth when Butler represented the go-ahead run.
Towson coach Mike Gottlieb said he thought Emanuel slipped a bit with his fastball command in the later innings, when the Tigers got to him after being shut out for five frames, but Emanuel didn’t think that was the case.
“I think it was just me not making the big pitch when I had to,” the junior said, “like the 1-2 fastball where I hit (Towson’s 5-foot-7 second baseman Pat Fitzgerald), there were some spots where I could have ended the threat and they’d put a good swing on it or I’d hit a guy.”
Towson’s biggest rally came in the eighth, when it loaded the bases with one out on a double, walk and the Fitzgerald HBP. Kurt Wertz plated two with a single to right, and a sacrifice fly by Peter Bowles made it 7-5. Dominic Fratantuono singled on an 0-2 pitch to chase Moran, but Thornton got Butler to end the threat.
One way Emanuel gets out of trouble is with one of the college game’s best pickoff moves, and he picked off two runners in the first five innings at first base.
“He made one kid mad,” the first baseman Stubbs said, “and the second kid said a bad word. It’s worked a lot. I’m not sure how many he’s picked off (10), but I’ve enjoyed every single one of them.”
Just like North Carolina has enjoyed every one of its regional wins, even if they were closer victories than some might have liked.
“At this point, a win’s a win,” Emanuel said. “I’m not too pleased with my performance, but we won, so I’m as happy as I can be.”